A Saddle and a Glass of Water

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2015 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: imagine what you could do with two inventions--an economical fuel cell and a reactionless thruster. Here's my interpretation. It's a thought experiment gone mad...

Tags: Science Fiction  

Cal-Tech was good to me. I was made co-author on a water-cracking fuel cell patent and my thesis advisor for my doctorate didn't try to steal the credit for a reactionless motor that I designed and built. The thing couldn't generate a lot of thrust but two or more of them would happily coexist, working in concert.

I traded research rights for access to some fly-by-wire technology from Grumman Industries, then I started tinkering. The fuel cell would pump out 550 volts DC until the catalyst was poisoned. Regrettably, Calcium would poison it quickly. All the water it used had to be steam distilled. Thankfully baby water and water for clothes irons is steam distilled and available world wide.

The fuel cell was the size of an overnighter suitcase. I worked with a CAD package to cram forty eight thrusters, a fuel cell and a ten gallon water tank into a horizontal fifty gallon drum. Then I had to cram in all the electronics. A post with a control screen and a joystick stuck straight up out of it at one end. Under the screen I hooked up a radio transciever that covered the aircraft bands. I had two types of RADAR, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR), an integrated GPS navigation system and a wind screen set up, then I looked around for a seat. I took a good long look at that barrel had a brainstorm. I went out and bought a used saddle and a pair of saddle bags, then welded some rings on the drum to hold the girth strap firmly in place.

The last thing I did to the thing was hook up a digital remote that I could wear around my neck. I had a burglar alarm, a fast climb command, a drop like a meteor command, a home-on-me linked to the fob's emitter and an all systems disable function on that thing. If it was out of service range then it used out-of-band cell tower traffic. A chip the size of your thumb nail can send and recieve SMS traffic. You had to hit two or even three keys at the same time to do anything hazardous with it.

There it was, sitting in front of me floating in the air. It looked kind of goofy. It had a head light, a tail light and a radio antenna. I calculated that I had over two years' fuel in a ten gallon tank. I pulled on a pair of heeled boots, shrugged into an armored motorcycle jacket and put on a wrap-around motorcycle helmet. Then I forked the thing, plugged my helmet into the radio, turned the key and took off straight up.

At about twenty thousand feet it was getting pretty hard to breathe so I dropped back down to eleven thousand before giving it some scoot. I had effectors rigged up in sets of four controlling all axes of motion including pitch, yaw and spin. In case I got into trouble I had a big flat button on the control pedestal that would zero out all motion as fast as it safely could considering my physical limitations. That thing could put out more accelleration than I could take without breaking something. I was glad that the saddle I'd picked up had a high cantle to keep my butt firmly planted in place. I still added a seat belt. With a belly hook welded to the thing's frame I could pick up a Buick and cart it off.

I owned eighty percent of the patent on the effectors with the rest going to the university. The money was coming in like there was no tomorrow and I had the last shipment of chocolate bars.

After my maiden flight I added a pressure sensor, a humidity sensor and an ambient temperature sensor. Then I added a mach meter to the display. I didn't want to inadvertently leave a trail of sonic booms behind me. The FAA gets testy about that. Still, I ran down the center of Lake Michigan at a meter above the deck at seven hundred knots and watched the rooster trail in my rear view mirror. Glorious. Of course, I took care to do it at about four in the morning and checked that the shipping lane was clear first.

My difficulty in breathing made me realize that I needed a pressure suit with an air supply--in essence, a space suit. Now, the monstrosities that NASA had sent the poor astronauts up in had so limited a range of motion as to be travesties as working suits. How they ever did anything effective during EVAs was a mystery to me.

I investigated the next couple generations of flight suits. One looked like a hard shell torso and head protector with flexible heated limbs. After checking on the dexterity and torso rotation I ordered one in my size. Then I added a pair of pre-mix air tanks, a regulator and an umbilicus fitting designed to mate to the suit. Electricity, air and radio were all to be supplied by the support craft. My only critical issue was to get the voltage down and regulate it. Two months and almost half a million later I tried on the suit. I easily could have leaned back and fallen asleep in the thing--which, I suppose, was the whole idea. The thing looked like I just walked off the set of Toy Story 3.

I knew I had to do it, but the necessity still made me wince. I had to fill out a very large number of forms to register my experimental VTOL aircraft with the FAA. The thing had all the RADAR reflectivity of a paper airplane so it was mandatory that I install an IFF beacon.

I had to get a sign-off by an airframe inspector. I unscrewed one end of the barrel and told him "Have at it." He looked inside, looked at me and looked inside again. I said "Four titanium rings welded into a solid frame with titanium bar stock. The electronics modules and connections are brand new in-warranty stock, military aircraft rated, courtesy of Grumman. Every nut and bolt are safety-wired in place. The rest is brand new tech. I'm a co-author or author of the patents." I motioned to the fuel cell. "Solid state fuel cell. The fuel tank contains demineralized water. The drivers are potted into their frames and installed in sets of four for reliability. The only unusual components are the 400 volt DC to230 volt DC downconverter and regulator and the 400 volt to 48 volt downconverter and regulator, but they're rated for over twice the amperage that the electronics can pull. I could fly this thing upside down without a problem."

He shook his head and signed off.

I had to install a bullet proof glass wind screen and a nose cone to pass the goose test. Then they said that the thing was too small to paint the ID number on in twelve inch letters. I gave 'em the finger, which they didn't like at all. Finally we took it to arbitration. The judge ruled that eight inch characters would be sufficient. I was in business as an experimental VTOL aircraft that could fly in through an open door and out through the window. I did remember to bolt a heavy hook to the frame beneath the center of mass before I was airframe certified.

Altogether I had over two million bucks tied up in the vehicle. I was tempted to put a stylized statue of a horse around it but it would have screwed with my licensing.

I thought about integrating an auto-pilot but the chassis was too small. I had enough trouble mapping NOTAMS avoidance areas on my chart plotter.

I had nothing better to do so I decided to do a little book shopping in England. After bolting a trunk to the rear of my craft I filed a flight plan from Willow Run airport, Detroit, Michigan to Stansted airport, London complex, Great Britain. I was cruising along at forty thousand feet when I was fired on by a goddamned strike fighter! I lifted straight up two thousand feet, dropped back to hover over his wing roots, made contact and pushed DOWN. Before he knew it his aircraft skipped off the Atlantic like an oval stone and quietly came to rest with a thoroughly quenched jet. There was a big lifting ring on his top surface just behind the cockpit. I hooked him up and hauled his silly ass to shore before his aircraft could sink. When I reached Stansted I unhooked from his craft at a likely looking parking bay then flew across the field to the helicopter pads. I closed out my flight plan and waited for the fecal storm. I was assigned a tie-down bay so I moved my ride then set the thing to lock into its coordinates so nobody could tow it away. I called for a ride, locked the console and unassed myself. I unlinked the umbilical and popped my helmet. Even with the smell of kerosene it was better than canned air.

I kept all my paperwork in a briefcase that I had stashed in a saddle bag. It made for a place to reliably find everything at once. Since I had no luggage and nothing to declare I made it through customs in a flash. I used my debit card to get a fist full of twenty Euro notes at an ATM then headed out for the taxi line. We stopped at a fish 'n chip stand for good street food, then it was off to the book stores.

There was a comic and superhero show going on at the time. My suit got a few admiring looks from the CosPlay crowd. I had to giggle to myself. They all thought it was a mock-up.

I had to buy canvas carry bags to transport all my new books back to the airport. There I was 'intercepted' as I walked down the concourse. It was all politeness and butter wouldn't melt in their mouths, but I heard the intent behind "Sir, please come with us."

"Why? I someone going to apologize for trying to shoot me out of the air?"

One of the two men became choleric. "What do you mean, apologize? You forced a corsair interceptor out of the air!"

I stood there and crossed my arms. "Rules of engagement, old son. I was fired upon first. I've got the lead streak on my wind screen to prove it. I was squealing away with the IFF and I was flying a registered flight plan."

"I know nothing about that. Still, the captain wants to speak with you."

"Let your bloody captain come here. I'll be damned if I'll allow you to take me into a back room somewhere and summarily imprisoned because someone's reputation is at risk." I extracted my fob and punched the code for "come-find-me". Before long I heard the sound of breaking glass and many aggravated people yelling. It wasn't long at all before my ride showed up right next to me. "I believe that this conversation is concluded. Please believe me when I say that Great Britain will be summarily blacklisted from purchasing fuel cells or reactionless engines. I am a signatory to the patents of both devices. Good day, gentlemen."

I climbed aboard, socketed my umbilical, inserted the key, enabled the controls and powered out of there. I was over the English channel at one meter AGL within twenty minutes.

I looped around the Atlantic visiting Iceland, Greenland, Baffin Island and NewFoundland. I didn't need refuelling but I appreciated the breaks in my flight and the company. I made quite a few friends on my trans-Atlantic flight.

I made arrangements to deny all business with Great Britain. It had been a meager fraction of my income.

I thought that I'd spend a week at Grumman's space flight facility modifying and vetting the suit. It needed a small power cell equipped with a generator to furnish local power and air in appropriate environments. The integral back pack was modified appropriately. The fuel cell could provide a higher density of oxygen storage by breaking down water than any conventional technique. I looked at all the cubic liberated by removing the compressed air bottles and envisioned the thing flying on its own. It wouldn't be acrobatic but it would beat the holy hell out of the EVA jet packs the astronauts were stuck with. Integrating the controls and adding a heads-up guidance system caused me close to no end of problems. The development time stretched to seven months. I patented the application and offered licenses. For a fee, of course.

After consideration I found myself terrified then deeply angered at the attempt to shoot me down without reason. I developed a method of shooting back.

I scrapped the 'horse' platform and bought a big 'Sprinter' van model 3500 with an extended roof as my platform of choice. The side walls, ceiling and floor were broad enough to support four synthetic apeture high-speed radar arrays. I paid to get the thing armored and have a hard point the width of the vehicle mounted on the roof. A 45 ton teleoperated boom crane and clamp were mounted beneath the chassis where the drive shaft and differential used to go. Equipping all the doors with vacuum seals was not trivial. Both seats were equipped with five-point harnesses while the center console gained two vacuum suit air umbilical links. The hood and front grill were replaced by a titanium nose cone.

The electronics bay was enhanced quite a bit. I started with the equipment from the 'horse' platform then added the drivers and decoders for the synthetic apeture radars. I bought into the Garmin navigation and G5000 control package as is built into the Citation X. At full power the radars would have killed birds fly nearby. I synthetically limited my ceiling to geostationary orbit so that my navigation could continue to use GPS cues. Rather than generate oxygen I stored four large tanks in the rear bay, though I did provide for emergency oxygen generation from a second, re-worked fuel cell. I just didn't have the scrubber and filter technology installed. The Sprinter also gained a robust set of electric heaters. I attached two pull-down bunks in the cargo bay, along with a couple reading lamps and sufficient fans to keep the air moving in microgravity. I didn't forget the pull-down sheets with velcro closures either. You need them to keep your ass in your bunk at zero gee and not have thrashing 'falling' nightmares.

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